Graphene is an ultra-thin form of carbon that could transform the world of electronics
It's harder than diamond, 300 times stronger than steel, conducts electricity better than copper and could be the magic material that makes smartphones bendable. Discovered only in the last decade, graphene has the potential to revolutionize everything from consumer devices to medicine.
Scientists back in the 1940s had theories that an ultra-thin, strong and light material such as graphene might exist, but the path to discovery really began in 2002 at the University of Manchester. A researcher named Andre Geim asked his PhD student Kostya Novoselov to polish a piece of graphite — the form of carbon that is commonly used to make pencil lead — to see how thin he could make it.
Nothing much came of this until a Ukranian scientist, Oleg Shklyarevskii, noticed that the Manchester researchers were cleaning up their experiments by picking up the graphite dust using Scotch tape. The material on the tape was thinner than the graphite they were polishing.
By 2004, Geim and Novoselov had isolated the graphene flakes and published their research on its properties, winning the Nobel Prize in physics for their work in 2010. At least $60-million has gone into further research around the world since then, and in early May, over 800 scientists and graphene-applications experts attended the fourth global Graphene Conference in France.
Graphene is a form of carbon, just like graphite, or for that matter, diamonds and charcoal. Carbon atoms can combine to form myriad complicated networks; they are the basic building block of organic life.
What makes graphene special is that it is only one atom thick — a nanotechnologist's dream. The single graphene atoms bond together in a honeycomb pattern, creating a material that's strong and virtually two-dimensional. This gives it enormous potential in many fields, from electronics to energy, medicine and beyond.
Among the possibilities:
- Super-batteries: Researchers at UCLA have burned a layer of graphene onto a DVD to create a supercapacitor that can charge 100 to 1,000 times faster than a battery. Developing this technology further could mean electric cars that charge as fast as it takes to pump a tank of gas, or phones and tablets that recharge in five seconds.
- Clean water: Scientists at MIT are looking at whether a graphene membrane can be just porous enough to filter salt from seawater, which would greatly reduce the cost of desalination and create almost unlimited supplies of fresh water.
- Über-uploads: Graphene may make it possible to upload a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of data in one second.
- Cleanup: One-atom-thick flakes of graphene oxide can bind to toxic materials and condense them into solids. This experimental discovery, reported by Rice University researchers, could help in the cleanup of sites such as the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan and cut the cost of waste management for natural gas ‘fracking’ and rare-earth mining.
- Consumer technology: Researchers are looking at how to produce touchscreens made of graphene-coated plastic instead of glass, making them lighter, more break-resistant −and bendable. Apple, Google and Samsung are investing heavily in a race to deploy graphene in future high-tech devices, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
- Bionic Repairs: There may come a time when graphene is used in medical devices in living tissues that connect to neurons. This has exciting prospect for people with spinal injuries, who could regain the use their arms or legs.
Graphene does have some drawbacks. A study in the Proceedings of the (U.S.) National Academies of Science reports that it has sharp edges that can pierce lung or skin cells. Another study suggests that graphene released into freshwater could cause severe damage to rivers and lakes.
In addition, despite all the breakthroughs since graphene was first isolated in 2004, it's still hard to mass-produce. Graphene produced in bulk tends to fray at the edges, becoming brittle and losing one of its key advantages, strength.
On the other hand, because it is so thin, commercial graphene only has to be produced by the kilo rather than the tonne. The real breakthrough may come when the cost of production falls. According to the Paris Tech Review, it costs about $800 to make a gram now, compared with less than one dollar for a gram of electronics-grade silicon.
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